Contemporary Education Reform and “A Cult of Ignorance”

Writing in Newsweek (1980, January 21) in the cusp of America’s shift into the Reagan era of conservatism that included the roots of the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Isaac Asimov declared the U.S. “a cult of ignorance,” explaining:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

While science fiction (SF)—a genre within which Asimov is legendary—is often misread as prediction (SF is often allegorical or a critical and satirical commentary on the contemporary world, more so than predictive), Asimov’s brief essay is eerily prescient about the most recent education reform movement and the discourse surrounding it.

As Reagan ascended the presidency in the U.S., Asimov noticed a clear line being drawn by politicians between them as spokespeople for and with the public versus intellectuals, academics, and experts of all kinds. One shift Asimov observed was a move away from the 1960s “Don’t trust anyone over 30” to a new conservative “Don’t trust the experts.”

In America, it seems, economic elitism was desirable but intellectual elitism was to be avoided at all costs.

Asimov noted both the central importance of a powerful, independent, and critical media along with the inherent problem of how well equipped the public is to gain from such a media (if one exists). While I find Asimov’s concern for Americans’ literacy too flippant and suffering (ironically) from his own blindspot as an expert writer who likely was far less expert in the broader field of literacy and literacy instruction (his advanced degrees are in chemistry), he did make a credible though garbled call for critical literacy among an American public that is functionally literate:

[T]he American public, by and large, in their distrust of experts and in their contempt for pointy-headed professors, can’t and don’t read.

To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headline—but how many nonelitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic? [1]

Asimov eventually raised an important question about the right to know among a free people, the role of the media, and the need for an educated public in a free and democratic society:

I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read….

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like “America’s right to know” and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.

As we time-travel forward thirty-three years, Asimov has offered the current education reform template as well as the tremendous hurdle facing teachers, researchers, and scholars seeking to raise their voices of expertise and experience against a political and public commitment to a cult of ignorance: Don’t trust experts, but do trust politicians, celebrities, and billionaires.

Asimov’s essay, with only a few edits, could easily be written today and aimed squarely at the education reform movement. Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee warn the American public not to listen to the experts—teachers, researchers, and scholars.

That discourse remains robust as long as the media reports and perpetuates that political message and as long as formal education remains primarily bureaucratic, insuring that schools fail to foster critical literacy while the consumer culture feeding on entertainment keeps the public so busy and distracted that few bother to consider the danger ignoring experts poses to both freedom and democracy.

The political and economic elites benefit themselves from marginalizing and demonizing educators and the educated (the expert); the political and economic elites also benefit indirectly and directly from keeping universal public education in the most reduced form possible, exactly what accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing insure.

The education reform movement’s commitments to Common Core State Standards, national high-stakes tests, teacher evaluation linked to those tests, and chain-type charter schools are not quests for a better educated American public, but strategies for further entrenching the U.S. in the cult of ignorance Asimov unmasked over three decades ago.

[1] Asimov’s immediate school bashing based on test scores suggests he, too, was a victim of careless attention to the facts.

remnant 4: “good enough for one of your blogs but…” | DISCOURSE as quilting

remnant 4: “good enough for one of your blogs but…” | DISCOURSE as quilting.

Recently, I had the kind of experience with a scholarly submission that I wish I could someday identify as rare, but the truth is, this is essentially typical—even among the progressive and critical colleagues, scholars, and publications where I place a good deal of my academic and scholarly work.

I submitted a chapter and was prompted to revise and rewrite it multiple times (I, in fact, appreciate and thrive on substantial editor feedback in my work, especially since much of my public work—see below—is produced in isolation). Often, when editors ask for revisions of my academic work, the initial comments revolve around the work being too conversational—too much personal narrative.

For the record, when I submit public work, the editorial complaint is my work is too scholarly.

[Read on by clicking link at beginning]

Alternative Education Reform: Among the Invisible and “Preferably Unheard”

Educators as workers in a profession rendered invisible and “preferably unheard” are increasingly being demonized, marginalized, and challenged as defenders of the status quo and anti-reformers.

The Sisyphean hell of being a teacher includes having almost no autonomy or power in educational policy but receiving the brunt of the blame when the outcomes of those policies do not meet the goals promised.

Yet, throughout the academic and scholarly press as well as the public media and “new” media, such as blogs, educators, researchers and scholars present daily alternatives to the repackaged reform movement committed to the same failed policies that have plagued education for a century—standards, testing, and assorted business models of efficiency forced onto education.

Education is a massive and complex endeavor, and the common sense perception of how to address teaching and learning, how to reform schools that appear to be broken, envisions equally massive and complex solutions (think VAM and merit pay).

And here is where educators may be trapped in our quest to discredit misguided reform and to take ownership of credible reform: Our alternatives appear too simple on the surface but are incredibly complicated, unpredictable, and unwieldy in their implementation. In short, most credible calls for education reform are outside the box thinking when compared to traditional education, business models, and social norms.

For example, Larry Ferlazzo in one sentence dismantles much of the current reform movement and offers alternatives:

“Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.”

Again, maybe this is too simple, but education reform does not need new standards, new tests, or new accountability and merit pay policies.

Education reform is needed, but should be re-imagined as a few new paradigms:

• Instead of a standards-based education system that places the authority for curriculum in a centralized bureaucracy, teacher autonomy and expertise should be the focus of reform—paralleling the culture of higher education in which professors are hired for field expertise as well as the teaching of their fields. [This change in the midset of reform and the culture of K-12 schools, thus, creates the conditions in which a revised paradigm in accountability can be implemented, see below.]

• Instead of a test-based education system that measures, quantifies, ranks, and evaluates, high-quality and rich feedback for both teachers and students should be the focus of reform; feedback is formative and thus contributes positively to learning and growth.

• Instead of high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and that demands compliance as well as blurs causation and correlation (teachers, for example, being held accountable for student outcomes), teacher accountability focusing on the learning conditions provided by the teacher should be embraced. This reform measure should emphasize the equity of opportunity provided all students [1], regardless of the teacher, the school the community, or the home environment.

• Instead of devaluing teacher preparation through alternative programs or ideologies that suggest content knowledge is more valuable than (or even exclusive of) pedagogy and through teacher evaluation policies that label, rank, and seek to fire teachers, teacher preparation and teacher evaluation should honor the complex nature of content knowledge and the pedagogy needed to teach that knowledge (see the first bullet above) while emphasizing mentoring and teaching as constant learning over stack ranking and dismissing a predetermined percentage of teachers.

Educators know what and how to teach. Education is a rich field with a tremendous amount of consensus and enduring debates along the spectrum of subcategories that constitute education—pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and more.

The great irony of the need to shift away from the historical dependence on bureaucratic efficiency models of education reform and toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher and conducting schooling is that the latter is far more challenging for teachers and students, and as Felazzo explains:

“Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing….Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose…..Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.”

Both teachers and students can and will benefit from education reform that focuses on the conditions of learning that honor “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in ways that allow for failure, revision, and unpredictable outcomes—none of which are fostered in the efficiency model that historically and currently corrupts education reform.

[1] See Wright’s examination of access to equitable early childhood education

Education: The Invisible Profession

“I am an invisible man,” announces the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, adding:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, of figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me….That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact….you often doubt if you really exist….It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

After the reader follows the narrator along his journey from naivete and idealism to the battered realism of coming face-to-face with his invisibility, we discover that his invisibility leads to hibernation:

I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in….So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation.

Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).

While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists.

Two powerful and persistent responses from the new reform advocates when anyone (especially an educator) challenges their reform agendas include (a) teachers are against reform and want the status quo, and (b) while teachers are quick to criticize X reform policy, they never offer any solutions of their own.

These responses are not accurate (most educators are reformers at heart, and educators, thus, have many things to offer in terms of better reform agendas), but most of all they exist in a narrative that renders the entire field of education invisible.

Modern education as a field of study is over a century old. A great deal of consensus and enduring debates characterize teacher education, pedagogy, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and assessment—all rich and vibrant elements of the larger field of education, informed by decades of practitioners and educational researchers.

My doctoral work included writing a biography of Lou LaBrant, who lived to be 102 and taught from 1906-1971. Recurring messages of LaBrant’s work as a teacher and scholar reveal an ignored fact of the teaching profession: Education in the U.S. has been primarily driven by political and bureaucratic mandates that have reduced teachers to implementing education policy, not creating it.

The most recent thirty years have intensified that legacy that reaches back to at least the first decade of the twentieth century, but was identified by LaBrant (1947) directly: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

In effect, then, for a century, teachers have been invisible in their own field, except as both compliant workers implementing political and bureaucratic mandates and as often-silent scapegoats as that bureaucracy fails.

However, even that teachers have primarily been those who implement education policy instead of those creating it is more complicated than it seems.

Regie Routman documented the typical dysfunction that characterizes education policy. By the 1990s, California’s state literacy curriculum was being labeled a failure by politicians, the media, and the public; the culprit was whole language.

Yet, Routman unmasked the charges as misleading because of two factors: (1) Much of the measurable decline in California test scores was strongly correlated with decreased education funding and an influx of English language learners, and (2) while teachers received extensive in-service for implementing whole language, the vast majority of the teachers returned to their classes, shut their doors (hibernated), and taught as they had been taught, as they had always taught—thus, never implementing the whole language pedagogy and curriculum that constituted the official bureaucracy of the state.

The current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles.

As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

Just as teenagers seek out self-defeating ways to appear adult (cigarettes, alcohol, recreational drugs, sex) as expressions of their autonomy and agency, invisible workers of all kinds respond in dysfunctional ways when their autonomy is denied and their voices muted—just as Routman detailed about California during the rise and fall of whole language.

CCSS, charter schools, TFA, VAM, and merit pay plans are driven by advocates who refuse to see not only teachers but also the entire history and field of education, or as Arundhati Roy explains, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

If teacher quality is a genuine problem in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and compensation.

If curriculum and pedagogy are genuine problems in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for curriculum and pedagogy.

Let’s allow for the first time in history educators the recognition they deserve to examine, evaluate, and reform their own field. Current reform that is top-down and driven by the same historical and bureaucratic methods that have brought us to where we now stand is destined to repeat the same patterns we have already experienced for over 100 years.

But educators must step outside the social norm of apolitical, silent, hibernating teachers. Educators must confront our invisibility, but most of all, our culpability in our own de-professionalization, our hibernation, as Ellison’s narrator recognizes:

Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in languageElementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

Middle-Class Fear: Disaster Capitalism and the Threat of Poverty

Toward the end of HBO’s documentary American Winter, Brandon is finally offered a job after viewers have watched him and his wife Pam struggle against Brandon losing his job, resulting in their being unable to pay their rent and having to live with Pam’s mother.

When Brandon is told he has the job, his new boss notes Brandon is overqualified, but Brandon eagerly explains that he is thankful for the work and committed to do whatever he can to be a good worker—despite the cut in pay and drop in job status not in his plans as a young man and husband seeking the American Dream.

In a May Experience course (a three-week mini-semester after the traditional academic calendar at my university) built on education documentaries and confronting the connection between education and poverty, two of the most powerful films include HBO documentaries—Hard Times at Douglass High and Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later. Just as these works rise above the generally poor examinations of education found among education documentaries, American Winter is another HBO success, a thoughtful and confrontational exploration of poverty against the backdrop of the American Dream as it is being tarnished by disaster capitalism [1].

The scene above with Brandon and a few other aspects of the documentary give me pause, but first, I want to highlight how the film overwhelmingly succeeds.

The place of American Winter is Portland, Oregon, and the  situation, the wake of the 2008 economic downturn that swept across the U.S. and the world. But the single greatest achievement of the film is the focus on eight families (ironically also the most troubling aspect as I will discuss below) who put “people just like us” faces on the consequences of disaster capitalism and force the audience to reconsider stereotypes of people trapped in the clutches of poverty.

The people of these narratives are overwhelmingly white and entirely from the middle and working classes—simultaneously, literally not “people just like us” (considering the increasing racial diversity of the country) but also the characteristics historically associated with the idealized middle class of the American Dream myth. It is both important and problematic that the families in this film are not victims of generational poverty, but real-world models of people who have embraced and achieved, although momentarily, some elements of that American Dream—education, careers, homes or the promise of home ownership, marriage, children, and, not to be ignored in the background throughout the video, an abundance of assorted material possessions that can be found in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across America.

Punctuating these stories are job loss, eviction, homelessness, hunger, sickness, and the frail as well as dwindling safety nets of government, church, and private organizations.

Documentaries, like all forms of nonfiction texts, are never unbiased, and always some political and ideological lens for observing a phenomenon. Too often documentaries are shoddy, careless, and misleading. American Winter wears its ideology on its sleeve, but does so effectively and with a level of integrity that lends it credibility even for those who don’t share its social justice politics.

The families are allowed primarily to speak for themselves, literally and through a patient camera following them as they wilt beneath the weight of joblessness and homelessness—especially when the children speak, cry, and personify the incredible inequity of how burdensome healthcare can be through no fault of those who find themselves sick (for example, Chelsea’s battle with bleeding ulcers leaves her mother Shanon facing $49,000 in medical bills while the family is otherwise destitute).

The film also weaves clear and confrontational statistics throughout the stories of the families. The blunt facts and harsh experiences in this documentary present a different picture than political leaders, the media, and the public tend to embrace and perpetuate: Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and seeking out social services are not the consequences of flawed individuals, but the result of systemic inequity in America’s government and economy.

The idealized American Dream may never have been a credible cultural foundation, but American Winter convincingly forces viewers to recognize that democracy and capitalism have been consumed by disaster capitalism. And here are some of the questions the film does raise as well as some of the problems embedded in an otherwise ambitious and even radical project.

“Disaster capitalism” [2] is a term associated with Noami Klein, as she explains:

People spontaneously started using “disaster capitalism” to describe what was happening with what they were seeing around them because it was so clear that this disaster was being harnessed to push through a radical vision of totally unrestricted markets. And Bush didn’t make too much of a secret of it when he announced that his idea of reconstructing the Gulf Coast was to turn it into a tax-free, free-enterprise zone.

What the book is doing that’s new is it is connecting these contemporary capitalisms, which I think most of us can easily see in Iraq and in New Orleans, and saying actually this isn’t just some twisted invention of the Bush White House. That actually there is a history. Every time there has been a major leap forward for this fundamentalist version of capitalism that really doesn’t see a role for the state, the ground has been prepared by some kind of shock.

In American Winter, the disaster is the economic downturn, but in New Orleans, the disaster was natural, Hurricane Katrina. Portland and New Orleans [3] also share a central mechanism of disaster capitalism: A disaster creates the opportunity for a workforce to be erased, the job market then contracts, and a workforce is rebuilt in reduced circumstances for the workers—lower wages, part-time positions instead of full-time employment, an absence of benefits, service positions replacing skill and managerial positions.

The events in Portland and New Orleans are stark examples that the workforce problem in the U.S. is not a lack of skilled and eager workers, but an artificially contracting business model that benefits the 1% with American workers as interchangeable widgets.

While the focus on the plight of the American worker is needed and vivid in American Winter, one consequence of the choice to examine American workers dropping into poverty is that poverty is regrettable and something to be addressed only because it can (and did) happen to the working and middle class—in other words, generational poverty is left at the side of this film and the corrosive myth that generational poverty is the fault of those in poverty remains untouched.

In fact, as the viewers’ sympathy for the eight families increases, it seems entirely likely that people in generational poverty may be viewed even more harshly than before because poverty sits as a middle-class fear in the film. The deficit and demonizing perspectives of poverty are not challenged in the film and may be unintentionally strengthened.

In its purest form, capitalism may be viewed as needing all  citizens having access to some relatively balanced reserve of capital for that consumer market to thrive, but disaster capitalism is a corruption of the distribution of capital, thriving in fact on the threat of poverty as motivation for low-wage, mind-numbing and soul-draining work. Disaster capitalism is hurt less by some having no or little capital than by the absence of poverty, an absence that would lift the necessary threat that maintains a culture of fear and a frantic pace that distracts the 99% while the 1% play.

Many scenes in American Winter haunt me, but few as much as Brandon, reduced and broken, at the end in a scene that likely was intended as one glimmer of light in a truly dark winter for these families.

But Brandon—like many of the children in these families—personifies how disaster capitalism and consumerism have created an existence whereby our humanity is almost entirely anchored to who we are as workers. Our worker self is not a subset of who we are as humans; our worker self is our self.

Ultimately, that is the greatest disaster in disaster capitalism.

[1] Listen to Steve Hargadon interview Adam Bessie and see Bessie/Archer graphic journalism series on disaster capitalism and education reform (G.E.R.M.):

[3] See Sarah Carr’s Hope against Hope, which examines how charter schools replaced the public school system in New Orleans post-Katrina.

Becoming and Being a Teacher (Peter Lang USA)

BB.catalog copyThomas, P. L. (ed.)

Becoming and Being a Teacher

Confronting Traditional Norms to Create New Democratic Realities

Series: Critical Studies in Democracy and Political Literarcy – Volume 2

Year of Publication: 2013

New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2013. XVIII, 302 pp., num. ill.
ISBN 978-1-4331-1650-6 pb.  (Softcover)
ISBN 978-1-4331-1686-5 hb.  (Hardcover)